Tests from the state Department of Environmental Protection show elevated levels of a group of chemicals in water systems in Berks County.
The chemicals are combined concentrations of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known collectively as PFAS, a class of toxic chemicals used in products like nonstick cookware, carpets, firefighting foam and fast-food wrappers.
None of the levels in Berks is higher than the limit advised by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which is 70 parts per trillion, but a test result in Windsor Township is high enough that the owner wants to take action.
The state released results June 3. Here's what you need to know:
What are PFAS?
Per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS chemicals, are a family of thousands of man-made chemicals used to make water-, grease- and stain-repellent coatings for a vast array of consumer goods and industrial applications. PFAS refer to a set of plastics made up of well over 4,000 individual compounds, said David Coyne, a principal at Liberty Environmental Inc., an environmental and engineering consulting firm in Reading.
Hundreds of everyday products are made with PFAS. The dangers were highlighted in the film, "Dark Waters," which follows Robert Bilott's (Mark Ruffalo) real-life legal battle against DuPont over the chemical release into Parkersburg, W.Va.'s, water supply, affecting 70,000 townspeople and hundreds of livestock.
PFAS chemicals have been dubbed “forever chemicals” because they and their breakdown products are extremely persistent, likely lasting thousands of years or more.
“They build up in our bodies and never break down in the environment,” according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental advocacy and research organization. “Very small doses of PFAS have been linked to cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, and other diseases.”
State officials say their effects on human health are not fully understood.
Where did they find these chemicals?
Of more than 400 sites tested across Pennsylvania, about one-third were found to contain one of the chemicals. The sites with positive tests were located in more than two dozen counties. Two of the results were above the federal government's health advisory level of 70 ppt.
Of 43 tests in Berks, two were among the highest four in the state. Berks had the greatest number of samples taken in the study. Thirteen tests detected levels above 1 ppt.
The highest result in Berks, 66 ppt, was from a well that serves Blue Heron Village, an over-55 recreational community in Windsor Township. It was formerly known as Christman Lake. The next highest was 43 ppt at Arkema's thermoplastic resin plant in Exeter Township. Last year, Arkema was sued by the state of New Jersey for PFAS pollution from its former plant in West Deptford. The company was unavailable for comment.
Ivan Zimmerman, owner of Blue Heron Village, said the state shared the test results and he is monitoring the situation.
He said he is considering drilling a well on another part of his 200-acre property.
Christman Lake is a 20-acre man-made lake.
Zimmerman said the contamination was probably worse 50 years ago.
He said he suspects the source of groundwater contamination is a 40-acre landfill next to his property, which he said has no owner. The owners listed in county property records, Carl and Jane Christman, are both deceased.
"I want to see if I can get funding from the state," Zimmerman said. "I'm fully convinced it is coming from the landfill next door. It's abandoned. The property did not get transferred to anyone. The state used to monitor the wells but considered it a dormant landfill."
The landfill closed in 1989 because it did not have a permit to accept trash. At one point, according to a 1992 report in The Morning Call of Allentown, about 20% of the trash collected in Lehigh and Northampton counties went to the Christman's landfill.
Here is a link to the statewide results: https://bit.ly/3zsFZYW
Why did the state do these tests?
The chemicals have turned up increasingly in public water systems and private wells around the country after the federal government in 2013 ordered public water systems with more than 10,000 customers to test for them.
Pennsylvania is moving to set limits on the chemicals.
The state began the process of setting a maximum contaminant level for PFAS after the EPA did not commit to doing so in February 2019. This will mark the first time that DEP has set a level rather than adopting standards set by the federal government, as it has with all other regulated drinking water contaminants.
Jamar Thrasher, DEP press secretary, said the samples were taken to establish a baseline of prevalence of PFAS chemicals across Pennsylvania that will help guide DEP’s regulation of PFAS chemicals in drinking water.
The data from the sampling plan, including the data point from Christman Lake, will be combined with toxicology data and other information to guide the agency's setting of the contaminant level.
I have a private well. Does this affect me?
Because PFAS chemicals are an emerging contaminant, there are only a few laboratories in Pennsylvania that are accredited by the DEP, but the list of available labs is expected to grow in the coming years.
The most up-to-date listing of state-accredited labs is available by visiting the search tool for accredited environmental labs on the DEP website. In that tool, choose "perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)" from the dropdown list of "Analytes."
Because PFAS testing requires especially complex testing instruments and lengthy methods, it can often cost $200 to $500 for one sample.
The water sample must be collected carefully using detailed instructions and special containers provided by the laboratory.
Is the water safe to drink?
There isn’t a consensus among regulators about a safe drinking water level of PFAS.
The EPA set an advisory level of 70 ppt and announced in January it was moving forward to implement the PFAS Action Plan, which was developed over the last two years.
It began the process to develop a national primary drinking water regulation for two PFAS chemicals.
The process includes analyses, scientific review, and opportunity for public comment.
Additionally, EPA said it intends to fast track evaluation of additional PFAS for future drinking water regulatory determinations if necessary information and data become available.
The EPA recently proposed a rule that would require manufacturers of PFAS to provide information about the amount and type of chemicals they have produced.
In March, the National Conference of State Legislatures noted studies have linked the chemicals to causing adverse health effects such as low infant birth weights, asthma, cancer and thyroid hormone disruptions and endocrine disruptors and fertility issues in men.
"Notably, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s 2018 toxicological profile of PFAS also indicates that high levels of the chemicals in the blood may decrease how well the body responds to vaccines," NCSL said in its report.
The Environmental Working Group in Washington has highlighted science that says a safe level of exposure may be less than 1 ppt.
Many states are moving toward the 10 ppt range, said David Andrews, a scientist with the working group, in an interview last year.
Michigan has adopted a groundwater maximum contamination level of 70 ppt for PFAS, which is in line with the EPA advisory.
New Jersey adopted a drinking water contamination level of 14 ppt, and Vermont adopted a level of 20 ppt. In 2017, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network in Bucks County petitioned the state to set the level at 6 ppt.
Why do we need standards?
Although PFAS chemicals have been synthesized since the 1930s, it wasn't until the last 20 years that they've come under scrutiny, said Liberty Environmental's Coyne.
Coyne said with regulatory standards, scientists have a guidepost to gauge exposure risks and plan cleanup. He said PFAS appear to be readily removable from drinking water using conventional water treatment such as carbon absorption.
There is still much to study, but environmental engineers who help companies clean up sites are not surprised by the state's test results and welcome the state setting standards, he said.
"From a practical point of view, it's something that's been on our radar for quite a while," Coyne said.
Can these chemicals be removed?
Experts say they can be removed.
These effective technologies include activated carbon treatment, ion exchange resins, and high pressure membranes, like nanofiltration or reverse osmosis. Here is a link to EPA's Treatability database: https://tdb.epa.gov/tdb/findcontaminant.
After a round of results were released last year, Pennsylvania American Water Co. conducted a pilot study to remove PFAS in Frackville, which had a 16.5 ppt level.
The pilot study, which tested drinking water treatment technologies for PFAS removal, has been completed, said David James Misner, external affairs manager for Pennsylvania American Water. The final pilot study report was submitted to DEP in February.
"Currently, our water treatment plant upgrade project is in the design and permitting phase, with an in-service date anticipated by the end of 2022," Misner said.
What else is the state doing?
Pennsylvania is also developing a cleanup standard for PFAS soil contamination, hiring a toxicologist at the Pennsylvania Department of Health and securing additional toxicology services through a contract to move forward with setting a state limit for PFAS in drinking water.
The state says it is also:
• Taking steps to address remediation of the chemicals by working to change groundwater and soil remediation standards for three PFAS compounds.
• Taking steps to assist communities and private well owners if PFAS contamination is above the EPA advisory of 70 ppt.
• Developing uniform, science-based operating procedures to guide the identification and assessment of commercial and industrial properties that have contaminated private and/or public drinking water sources.
• Approving more than $20 million in grants to address PFAS groundwater contamination.
• Testing all water supplies to Pennsylvania Army National Guard facilities and state-owned homes for veterans for PFAS. While all sample results returned with non-detectable levels of PFAS, the water wells will continue to be monitored.
• Taking steps at the Horsham Air Guard Station to ensure adequate treatment of affected public drinking water supplies to the nearby Horsham Township in Montgomery County and Warminster and Warrington townships in Bucks County.